Verizon first started selling 4G LTE smartphones way back in March, but the new Samsung Stratosphere is its first offering with a slide-out keyboard. If you want 4G speeds on Verizon and a full QWERTY, this is it. This $149 device has a lot more going for it too, including a brilliant Super AMOLED screen and a sharp 5-megapixel camera. However, the Stratosphere does require some trade-offs versus higher-end Android phones on the carrier. Read on to find out if this slider is for you.
Nearly identical to Samsung's Epic 4G on Sprint, the Samsung Stratosphere sports a familiar but attractive look with its rounded edges, glossy screen, dark silver sides, and textured gray back. In everyday use, we found the textured back easy to grip, but the glossy sides are a little slippery, so be careful how you hold the phone.
At 5 x 2.5 x 0.6 inches and 5.8 ounces, the Stratosphere is similar in size to the 4.3-inch Droid Bionic (5 x 2.6 x.4, 5.6 ounces) and the 4-inch screen Motorola Droid 3 (4.9 x 2.5 x 0.5, 5.9 ounches). The T-Mobile myTouch 4G Slide (4.8 x 2.4 x 0.5, 6.5 ounces) is a little smaller but heavier. Upgrading to the extended battery adds both weight (1.1 ounces) and thickness to the device (0.2 inches). It's borderline embarassing, but as you'll find out below you'll probably need this add-on.
The Stratosphere's five-row QWERTY keyboard is the real star of the show. The generously spaced, curved keys provided excellent tactile feedback whether we were typing e-mails, entering notes using the bundled memo application, or simply searching in the browser. We appreciated the keyboard's dedicated number row and its ability to enter the text ".com" when we hit Fn + . key. However, we wish that the question mark and the @ symbol had dedicated keys so we did not have to hold down Fn every time we needed these frequently used symbols.
The Menu, Home, Back, and Search buttons flank the left and right sides of the keyboard, so you don't have to reach up below the screen to activate these functions when the slider is open. You just need to be careful not to hit these buttons while typing.
In addition to the stock Android touch keyboard, users can opt for Swype, which allows you to form words by tracing between letters. The Samsung keypad offers a slightly different key layout, including a dedicated .com key next to the spacebar and the ability to choose a 3 x 4 keyboard that places three to four characters on each key when in portrait mode.
All of the virtual keyboards offer optional haptic feedback so you can get the feel of physical buttons even when you're just typing on the screen. You can even adjust the level of haptic feedback in the setttings menu.
The Stratosphere's 4-inch, 800 x 480 Super AMOLED screen offered gorgeous, colorful images with deep hues. When placed next to the Droid Bionic and its 4.3-inch qHD screen, the Stratosphere's display was a little less bright, but much more rich and colorful. The Samsung Galaxy S II (T-Mobile), with its Super AMOLED plus display, was more colorful.
When we watched a high-quality YouTube trailer for the Avengers, the orange of an explosion, the red of Iron Man's armor, and the blue of Captain Amerca's costume all popped off the screen in brilliant shades. The edges of objects were sharp, and we detected no pixelation at all.
The capacitive touch digitizer was highly accurate and responsive to our touches, though we noticed that pinch-to-zoom operations often had a noticeable delay in redrawing the screen.
The Samsung Stratosphere offers the fastest average download speeds we've measured on a phone. In using Speedtest.net to measure bandwidth speeds across four locations--our Manhattan apartment, our New York Office, JFK Airport, and a hotel in downtown San Francisco--we saw an average download rate of 15.4 Mbps and an average upload speed of 6.2 Mbps. Those numbers beat out our previous champ, the HTC Thunderbolt, and its 14.1/4.6 Mbps and the Droid Bionic with its 11.6/3.4 Mbps. Better still, on one evening in our New York apartment, we saw an amazing average download speed of 30.1 Mbps.
Websites loaded quickly, but not as quickly as the synthetic numbers would indicate. Laptopmag.com, a desktop site, opened in an average of 12.7 seconds, far better than the 19.6 average time we experienced on the 3G Droid 3. Space.com, another desktop-only site, downloaded in an average of 14 seconds, far better than the 17 seconds it took on the Droid 3. Mobile sites CNN.com, ESPN.com, and Yahoo.com loaded in 4.7, 5, and 5.3 seconds respectively (all fast).
Mobile Hotspot and USB Tethering
For $30 a month, you can sign up for Verizon's mobile hotspot service, which allows you to share the Stratosphere's speedy data connection with up to eight other devices via Wi-Fi. In our office, a Dell Inspiron 14z managed got an average download speed of 9.7 Mbps and upload speed of 5.6 Mbps.
If you sign up for the hotspot plan, you can also use direct USB tethering to connect the Stratosphere to your notebook. However, we found setting up the tethering difficult. The checkbox for enabling tethering on the phone remained grayed even after we subscribed to the service, set our USB mode to Internet connection only, and disabled the Wi-Fi hotspot.
Finally, after a lot of plugging and unplugging of the USB and mounting/unmounting of the SD card, we were able to toggle the checkbox and connect, getting speeds of about 10 Mbps down in San Francisco. In our New York apartment, we saw average tethered speeds of 28.4 Mbps down and 8.9 Mbps up.
User Interface and OS
The Stratosphere comes with the Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread operating system with a few subtle tweaks, with what Samsung calls its TouchWiz interface. The device has five home screens for holding quick shortcuts and widgets, but the only pre-loaded widget is from Accuweather, and Samsung doesn't include any special widgets of its own. At the bottom of each home screen sits a set of shortcuts to the phone app, contacts, instant messaging, and browser.
Like other phones with TouchWiz, the Stratosphere's notification drawer has quick on/off buttons for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Rather than sorting your apps in alphabetical order, the applications menu places all newly-installed apps on the last page of shortcuts, but you can long press any shortcut to drag it to a different position.
Samsung has also given its own color scheme and look to standard Android apps such as the alarm clock, web browser, calendar, and e-mail app, which feature dark green, blue, and red text and icons against a sleek black background for a high-tech look. We particularly liked the look of the clock application, which makes it easy to keep track of your alarms or track the time in different countries.
Setting up the bundled e-mail application to check both our personal POP account and our work exchange mail was easy, but we wish it was easier to reply to messages. While many Gingerbread phones, including the myTouch 4G Slide, have Reply and Reply to All buttons available directly below or above the e-mail text, on Samsung's mail client, you have to tap an envelope icon at the top of the message screen and then choose Reply, Reply to All, or Forward from a pop-up menu.
In addition to standard programs like e-mail, browser, and clock, Samsung bundles the Stratosphere with some useful apps. AllShare allows you to share media files wirelessly with other DLNA-enabled devices such as home theater boxes. Samsung Media Hub provides a store for buying downloadable Movies and TV shows. Memo lets you jot down quick notes for yourself. My Files allows you to navigate around the SD card's file system.
Our favorite utility is Samsung Task manager, which shows you how much of your RAM and storage are free and presents a list of running apps you can close. Better still, you can access the task manager directly from any screen, simply by long pressing the home key and tapping the button that appears.
Quickoffice 4.1 allows you to create and edit Word, PowerPoint, or Excel files while also reading PDFs. If you need to edit documents on your phone, the combination of this application and the physical keyboard might be reason enough for you to purchase the Stratosphere.
Verizon touts the Stratosphere's ability to appeal to businesses, saying in a press release that it will support Samsung's Enterprise Platform enhancements which include VPN, Encryption and Device management. The phone is also supposed to support Cisco B2B services and Sybase Afaria's remote device management. IT departments will have to install and configure any of these features on their own as Quickoffice is the only preloaded business app.
Verizon also pre-loads its share of trialware and services, including V Cast media, V Cast Music, V Cast Videos, V Cast tones, and VZ Navigator. Bundled games include a trial version of Need for Speed Shift and Let's Golf.
Video and Audio Chat
Despite its front-facing camera, the Stratosphere does not include any video chat apps. Even the bundled Google Talk app does not support video conferencing, though Google has enabled that functionality in stock Android 2.3.5. Using Vtok, a third-party app that allows you to do Google video talks even on phones that don't support them natively, we were able to conduct a video call over Wi-Fi but the images often froze and were choppy while audio cut in and out.
We were able to conduct a loud, clear audio call using Skype for Android, but it did not allow us to use video.
The 1-GHz Samsung Hummingbird processor was state of the art a year ago, but it's now a generation behind the dual-core CPUs inside the latest Galaxy S IIs. The good news is that we were able to play games such as Need for Speed Shift without a hitch and stream high-quality YouTube and Netflix videos very smoothly. However, we noticed some lag here and there.
When browsing the web using the built-in browser and the Firefox app, the Stratosphere had trouble keeping up with our scrolling and often showed a checkered box on the screen while it repainted. We noticed the same issue when zooming in and out. When we tried another third-party browser, Dolphin Mini, we did not experience the checkered box issue.
On a few occasions, we noticed that leters we had typed into the browser address bar showed up after a second or two of delay. The camera application was also a source of sluggishness, as it sometimes took a while to change modes. On one occasion, the entire phone locked up, forcing us to reboot.
The Stratosphere's performance issues were reflected in its weak score on Linpack, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall system prowess. In the single-threaded version of the test, the phone scored just 17.3, better than the 12.2 category average, but far worse than the 44.7 offered by the myTouch 4G Slide. In the multi-threaded version of the test, the Stratosphere's score of just 16.03 was a lot worse than the 27.5 offered by the HTC Thunderbolt, the 39 provided by the Droid 3, or the 53.3 given by the Droid Bionic.
However, when it came to graphics, the Stratosphere delivered numbers that were on par with or better than its competitors. On An3DBench, a graphics benchmark, the Stratosphere's score of 59 was well above the 50.3 category average and on par with the HTC Thunderbolt's 58, the Droid 3's 57, and the myTouch 4G Slide's 58.
When making phone calls, the Stratosphere sent and received loud, clear audio. Friends and family we talked to reported that our voice sounded strong, as their voices were pleasant and detailed as well. The speakerphone also provided audio that was extremely loud and clear.
LTE phones are notortious for having short battery life, and the Samsung Stratosphere might be the worst. Though our battery test failed on several runs, we noted that the battery level declind to 88 percent after just 30 minutes of web surfing at 40-percent brightness. Extrapolate that result and you get a time of 4 hours and 10 minutes, which seems consistent with our anecdotal use. Over the course of several days, we found the battery running low after half a day's use.
Even with the $50 extended battery attached and a day where the phone spent most its time in our pocket, we found the battery running low by the early evening. We consider this accessory essential for this phone.
By contrast, the HTC Thunderbolt was worse at 3 hours and 46 minutes with its standard battery.
When connected to an AC outlet, the standard battery charged at a sluggish rate of about 20 percent an hour and the extended battery at about half that. After leaving the phone connected to a wall for around 5 hours, the extended battery had only charged from about 37 percent to 86 percent. When attached to our notebook's USB port, the extended battery's charge increaed by 1 percent every 10 minutes, a rate of 6 percent an hour.
The Stratosphere features a 5-MP rear-facing camera for shooting photos and video and a 1.3-MP front-facing camera for video chats. In tests, the back-facing camera took sharp, colorful images both indoors and out that were above average for a smartphone. In a picture of a busy street, the yellow shade of a taxi cab seemed to pop. Indoor shots of two cats taken in relatively low light were also clear and colorful.
The 1.3-MP front-facing camera provided a reasonably sharp image of our face with direct overhead light. In dimmer conditions, the picture was extremely noisy and pixilated.
Unlike so many of its competitors (The Droid Bionic, Droid 3, myTouch 4G Slide), the Samsung Stratosphere's rear-facing camera is only capable of capturing of standard-def, 480p video. A clip of cars rolling down the street was bright and colorful but not high-res enough to justify playing the video on an HDTV or computer.
Plans and Value
Riding on the fastest 4G network isn't cheap. To purchase and use the Stratosphere at its contract price, you'll need to commit to a minimum of $69.99 a month plus taxes and fees for 24 months. Verizon's minimum voice plan is 450 minutes for $39.99 a month and its minimum data plan costs $30 for 2GB. Considering that we chewed through 1.5GB of data in a week of normal use, heavier data users are better off with the 5GB ($50) or 10GB ($80) plan. Current Verizon customers who have $30 unlimited data plans are allowed to keep those plans after upgrading.
If you want a phone with a physical keyboard and access to Verizon's 4G LTE network, the Samsung Stratosphere is your best choice, but it's also your only choice. The Stratosphere's five-row keyboard is a joy to use, its gorgeous Super AMOLED screen really pops, and it offers the fastest data speeds we've seen yet. However, the performance and battery life of this Android handset leave something to be desired.
If you can live without a keyboard on Verizon and you can afford the steeper upfront cost, we recommend the dual-core $299 Droid Bionic. Or just wait for the thinner $299 Droid Razr. If you want a physical keyboard, but are willing to consider another carrier, grab the myTouch 4G Slide on T-Mobile. Overall, the Stratosphere is pretty good for its $149 price, but it's not great.